Monthly Archives: March 2016

Your Biometric Data in Corporate Hands: the class action against Facebook

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Secretly amassed the world’s largest private held database of peoples’ biometric data

A federal judge has dismissed a class action lawsuit against Facebook after the California-based social media site claimed there was a lack of personal jurisdiction in Illinois.The plaintiff in the case, Fredrick William Gullen, filed the complaint alleging violations of the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. Gullen is not a Facebook user, but he alleged that his image was uploaded to the site and that his biometric identifiers and biometric information was collected, stored and used by Facebook without his consent. The Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, implemented in 2008, regulates the collection, use, and storage of biometric identifiers and biometric information such as scans of face or hand geometry. The act specifically excludes photographs, demographic information, and physical descriptions….

In the Facebook case, no ruling has been made on whether the information on Facebook counts as biometric identifiers and biometric information under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. Instead, the judge agreed with Facebook that the case could not be tried in Illinois.

However, the company is currently facing a proposed class action in California relating to some of the same questions….How the California class action will play out remains to be seen. California does not yet have a clear policy on biometric privacy.A bill pending in the state’s legislature would extend the scope of the data security law to include biometric data as well as geophysical location, but it has not yet become law.  The question of privacy in regards to biometric information is one that has garnered increasing attention in recent months. On Feb. 4, 2016 the Biomterics Institute, an independent research and analysis organization, released revised guidelines comprising 16 privacy principles for companies that gather and use biometrics data.

Excerpts from Emma Gallimore, Federal judge boots Illinois biometrics class action against Facebook, Legal Newswire, Feb. 22, 2016, 12:15pm

See also the case (pdf)

Nothing Outlasts the Fukushima Disaster: it keeps going and going….

energizer

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe moves to reopen Japanese nuclear plants that were all shut after the disaster on March 11, 2011, a distrustful public is pushing back. A court on March 9, 2016ordered Kansai Electric Power Co. to halt two of the four reactors that have been restarted, saying the utility had failed to show the public they were safe. The utility called the ruling “unacceptable” and said it would appeal….However, near the ruined Fukushima reactors……Growing swaths of land are covered with black bags full of slightly radioactive soil.

The hardest parts of the cleanup haven’t even begun. Tepco, as Tokyo Electric is known, has yet to draw up plans for removing highly radioactive nuclear fuel that melted through steel containment vessels and now sits at the bottom of three Fukushima reactors.The company estimates that the nearly $20 billion job of decommissioning the plant could take another three or four decades. That is not counting damages and cleanup costs expected to reach some $100 billion or more, including about $50 billion paid to evacuees. Legal wrangling over the disaster continues. In February 2016, three former Tepco executives were charged with professional negligence.

Tepco also is working to reduce a total 400 tons of rain and groundwater that breach the plant’s defenses daily, becoming contaminated and requiring treatment and storage. But a wall of frozen earth meant to reduce the flow has run into resistance from regulators.On large parts of the site, workers can now walk around without full-face shields or hazmat suits, using simple surgical masks for protection.Fukushima was once a prized post for elite engineers and technicians in Japan’s nuclear heyday. Now, unskilled laborers make up the bulk of a workforce of about 6,000 workers, down from a peak of 7,450 in 2014. “There’s a constant stream of people who can’t find work elsewhere,” said Hiroyuki Watanabe, a Communist city councilman in Iwaki, about 30 miles away. “They drift and collect in Fukushima.”…

Looking ahead, the biggest issue remains the reactors. No one knows exactly where the molten nuclear debris sits or how to clean it. Humans couldn’t survive a journey inside the containment vessels, so Tepco hopes to use robots guided by computer simulations and video images. But two attempts had to be abandoned after the robots got tripped up on rubble.“The nature of debris may depend on when the nuclear fuel and concrete reacted,” said Pascal Piluso, an official of France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission. “We are talking about extremely varied and complex debris.”….A government panel recently questioned Tepco’s ability to tackle the daunting task of decommissioning while seeking profit for its shareholders. The disaster nearly pushed the company to bankruptcy, prompting the government to buoy it with ¥1 trillion ($9 billion  (really????) in public money and pledge government grants and guarantees to help Tepco compensate victims.”…

Excerpts  from Fukushima Still Rattles Japan, Five Years After Nuclear Disaster, Wall Street Journal, Mar. 8, 2016

Invading from the Air: the virgin digital land

Google Loon Launch event image from wikipedia

Google’s Project Loon is an effort to develop high-altitude balloons that can bring Internet connectivity to remote areas. The technology has been tested over the past couple of years, but not at scale. Rama, a quasi–public company controlled by venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya [who runs Silicon Valley venture firm Social Capital] and the Sri Lankan government, aims to do just that. Google sent the first Loon balloon above Sri Lanka in February 2016, and the government says it’s working with the company to blanket the country with coverage from another dozen. …Under a deal Palihapitiya negotiated, Google is leading the Loon launches, development, and maintenance, and Rama will run the software to control access to the balloons’ Internet connections and handle billing. People will still pay local operators for data, and carriers will pay Rama an as-yet-undisclosed fee to help ferry traffic.

The Loon fleet could offer a cheaper alternative to undersea Internet cables, which pass through the regional choke points of Singapore and Hong Kong. Carriers in developing Asian and South American nations pay more than 10 times the bandwidth prices their European and U.S. counterparts do, researcher TeleGeography estimates. (The median wholesale price for a monthly 10-gigabit-per-second connection in Los Angeles or Frankfurt is $1; in Mumbai, it’s $15.) Sri Lanka’s data use is growing 45 percent a year and will likely do so for the next decade, the United Nations estimates.

Excerpts from  A Would Be Wi-Fi Paradise, Bloomberg Business Week, Mar. 27, 2016

Trading for Peanuts: the Illusion of Transparent Markets

stockmarket

Yet investors worry that, in many cases, competition has brought down the visible price of trading by adding hidden costs. Two anxieties stand out. One is the worry that the current set-up of the markets allows high-speed traders to anticipate big orders and “front-run” them, moving prices in an unfavourable direction before an order can be executed. The other is the question of how robust the system is, with regulators still unable fully to explain events like the “flash crash” of 2010, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged by 9% in minutes before rebounding.

Start with fears of front-running. Many institutional investors complain that ultra-fast traders spot big orders entering the market, and race ahead of them to adjust their prices accordingly. Attempts to hide from the speedsters can go awry. In January Credit Suisse and Barclays, two big banks, agreed to pay $154m in fines for misleading clients about the workings of their “dark pools”, where offers to sell and bids to buy are not published. In theory, that protects investors from front-running; in practice, several of the firms running such venues had concealed the central role that high-frequency traders played on them. (Credit Suisse didn’t admit or deny wrongdoing in the settlement.)

There is another, less-often-told side to the story. Speed is necessary to knit together a dispersed set of exchanges, so that investors are immediately routed towards the best price available and so that their orders are the first to get filled. And plenty of high-frequency traders are market-makers; it is their job to adjust prices in response to new information. Nonetheless, the idea that markets are rigged is widespread, not least thanks to the publication of “Flash Boys”, a book by Michael Lewis on the evils of high-speed trading.

One proferred solution is to level the field by slowing things down deliberately. IEX, whose founder is the hero of Mr Lewis’s book, is a trading platform that has applied to the SEC to become an exchange. It uses miles of coiled cable to create a “speed bump” that delays trades to the advantage of institutional investors. The SEC has received more than 400 letters in support of its application, but there is a vigorous debate about whether IEX’s system complies with the requirements of Regulation National Market System (Reg NMS). Some think that the better solution would be to get rid of Rule 611, which in effect requires orders to be sent to the exchange showing the best price, even though such quotes can sometimes be unobtainable in practice. The SEC will vote on IEX’s application by March 21st.

Share Trading, Complicate, then Prevaricate, Economist, Feb. 27, 2016

The Logging Wars, Tasmania

swift parrot bruny island tasmania australia. image from wikipedia

Bruny island, off south-eastern Tasmania, is a home to the swift parrot. Small and green, with patches of red and blue, it breeds only in Tasmania, feeding on nectar from the blue gum tree, a eucalypt, and migrating to south-eastern Australia for the winter. But the logging of Tasmanian forests has destroyed its habitat…Only 2,000 individuals may survive.  In November 2015  the state government stopped logging on Bruny Island after an outcry over the parrot’s plight. An earlier study by Dejan Stojanovic, of the Australian National University, and colleagues had revealed how logging and land-clearing for farms in Tasmania had left swifts, which breed in the trunks of old gum trees, vulnerable to predation by sugar gliders, an introduced possum…. UNESCO-listed world heritage wilderness area was expanded to embrace the Styx valley west of Hobart, thick with eucalyptus trees thought to be 600 years old. The listed region now covers almost a quarter of Tasmania.

But…On becoming premier two years ago, Will Hodgman of the conservative Liberal party said he was tearing up the deal, concerned that his state’s growth lagged the rest of Australia. He now proposes opening up some protected areas for logging.  UNESCO wants commercial logging in the listed forests banned.

Tasmania’s forests: Saving the swift parrot, Economist,  Feb. 13, 2016

Engineering Coral Reefs

Coral Reef, image from wikipedia

In the past half-century, though, these beautiful, biodiverse structures have been put under pressure by human activity. About a quarter of all coral cover has died. The reefs that are in worst shape are those off the most crowded beaches. “People don’t leave enough time for their sun cream to soak in, so it gets in the water,” says one deckhand with Eo Wai’anae Tours, which organises boat trips off Oahu. More damage is caused by fertiliser-rich run-off from farms, leading to algal blooms which block light the corals need. Fishing near reefs cuts the number of herbivorous fish, allowing vegetation to grow out of control. Some fishing methods are particularly harmful: for example, blast fishermen in Colombia, Tanzania and elsewhere use dynamite to stun and kill fish without regard to the harm done to nearby reefs…In the South China Seaisland-building and fishing for giant clams are crushing some reefs beyond the possibility of recovery (seearticle)….

Tourism generated by the Great Barrier Reef is worth about $4.6 billion annually to nearby Queensland alone. Australian bigwigs bent over backwards last year to keep the UN from listing the reef, a World Heritage Site, as “in danger”. Estimates suggest that the economic value of Martinique and Saint Lucia’s corals comes to $50,000 per square km each year, thanks largely to tourism. But overdevelopment threatens the reefs the visitors come to gawp at. Sediment from construction clouds waters, burying corals and blocking the light they need. Hotels close to the shore may be convenient for tourists, but the process of building them can kill the reefs that snorkellers like to swim over…The three countries with the largest numbers of people who fish on reefs are all in the coral-triangle region: Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. In Indonesia and in the Philippines, up to 1m people’s livelihoods depend on reefs.

Averting a tragedy of the commons means agreeing which activities should be restricted and enforcing the rules. For coral reefs—and other biodiverse marine environments—the usual approach is to give ecologically sensitive areas special status under local or regional laws. In such “marine protected areas” (MPAs), activities that are deemed harmful, such as fishing, drilling and mining, can then be restricted or banned, with penalties for rule-breakers.

The Aichi targets, agreed in 2010 under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, seek to reduce “anthropogenic pressures” on coral reefs to “maintain their integrity and function”. The aim is to have at least 17% of inland water and 10% of coastal and marine areas under conservation by 2020. Most countries have signed up. But the targets are far from being met. Less than 3% of the ocean’s surface is within an MPA.

The most urgent action is needed close to shore. The nearer humans are to reefs, the worse their effect on the fragile ecosystems. A global register of fishing vessels, long under discussion, would also help identify wrongdoers. And beefing up the UN law of the sea could inspire further action. Decades old, it has little to say about biodiversity.

But simply declaring an area protected does not make it so. In 2009 George Bush junior, then president of America, established three national marine monuments in the Pacific, including nearly 518,000 square km of coral islands and surrounding areas. Their remoteness makes it hard to stop vessels entering illegally; Hawaii’s coastguard is already stretched.

Satellites are sometimes used to police MPAs, but they pass over infrequently. In the future, sailing robots could play a larger role. America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been working with a private firm, Saildrone, on hardy models equipped with carbon-fibre fins. They cost less than $500,000 each and can roam remote ocean regions for months, making them far cheaper than manned boats.

Such drones could photograph rogue fishing vessels, obtaining hard-to-gather evidence for any criminal proceedings. And they could carry out other useful work at the same time, such as monitoring ocean temperature and acidity or tracking tagged members of endangered species. Saildrone plans to provide its robots as a service, so that universities and other cash-strapped organisations do not have to buy one outright…

Even if the right policies are adopted to keep corals healthy in the immediate future, longer-term threats loom. Neither oceanic warming nor acidification can be kept out by an MPA. And both may be happening too fast for corals to adapt, especially as recent global climate deals will not slow them much. Back slaps and handshakes accompanied the inclusion of an aim to limit global warming to just 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in the Paris Agreement last year. But only an incorrigible optimist would bet on that aim being achieved.

So researchers are turning their attention to ways to help corals cope. Their global diversity, scientists hope, may hold the key. The same coral will grow differently under different conditions: corals of the western Pacific near Indonesia, for example, can withstand higher temperatures than the same species in the eastern Pacific near Hawaii….The characteristics that help some reefs survive unusual conditions could allow others to endure climate change. But tough corals from one place cannot simply be transplanted to another. So a team at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology is in the early stages of engineering reef ecosystems, with $4m from the Paul G. Allen Foundation, a charity set up by Bill Gates’s former business partner.

Organisms respond to environmental changes through both genetic processes (adaptation) and non-genetic ones (acclimatisation). With corals, the nature of their symbiotic relationships can also alter. So selectively breeding and conditioning them, and investigating whether certain types of algae confer resistance to heat or acidity, could create hardier varieties faster than they would develop naturally.

These could then be used to repopulate ravaged reefs—once more is known about how and where to transplant them. “We’re assisting evolution,” explains Ruth Gates, who leads the research.

Marine conservation: Rejuvenating reefs, Economist, Feb. 13, at 57

The Most Dangerous Dam in the World

Mosul Dam chute spillway. image from wikipedia

Sensors installed by American army engineers in December 2015 show widening fissures in the fragile gypsum base underneath the Mosul dam,  though no one can predict when a breach might occur….The Iraqi government has now contracted with the Trevi Group, an Italian firm, which it hopes will offer a more advanced and permanent method of plugging cavities in the stone base than the constant maintenance it has required for the past 30 years. That maintenance came to an abrupt halt after IS seized the dam in August 2014, and has continued only intermittently after it was seized back three weeks later. Essential equipment went missing then, and half its staff decided not to return to work.

One study says that if the dam collapses, Mosul would be submerged within hours. Another warns that half a million Iraqis could be killed by floodwaters, and more than a million forced from their homes. Disease and looting as the floodwaters raced through Baiji, Tikrit, Samarra and even parts of Baghdad would complete that dreadful scenario.

The dam was built by an Italian-German consortium and started operating in 1986. Because of the high proportion of gypsum in the area, the construction included a grouting tunnel to allow almost constant injection of cement and drilling mud into crevices in the base that are widened by the water flowing through them. America’s Army Corps of Engineers warned in 2005 that the “extraordinary engineering measures” needed to maintain its structural integrity made the structure potentially the most dangerous in the world.*** But taking the dam out of commission is not an attractive option. Emptying the reservoir would leave Iraqis seriously short of drinking and unpolluted irrigation water in the summer.

Excerpts from The Mosul dam: A watery time-bomb, Economist, Feb. 13, 2016, at 42

***  The dam was constructed on a foundation of water soluble gypsum!!! More than 50,000 tonnes  of material have been injected into the dam since leaks began forming shortly after the reservoir was filled in 1986, and 24 machines currently continuously pump grout into the dam base. Between 1992 and 1998 four sinkholes formed downstream of the dam and a fifth sinkhole developed east of the dam in February 2003 which was filled several times. In August 2005 another sinkhole developed to the east (Wikipedia).

The Tree Worth more than Gold

Agarwood. image from wikipedia

To protect incense trees, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora restricts trading in agarwood. But Hong Kong does not single out those who destroy or damage the trees for harsh treatment. If an incense tree is on government-managed land, the maximum sentence for cutting it down is the same as it is for felling any other kind of tree on such property: a fine of HK$25,000 ($3,210) and a year in prison.  Such penalties do little to deter thieves from mainland China, who are encouraged by growing demand for exotic medicines among members of the mainland’s fast-growing middle class. Professor C.Y. Jim of the University of Hong Kong reckons that in 2013 high-grade agarwood was worth $1,600 a gram on the black market. That is more than gold. According to Mr Jim, Hong Kong may be the “last refuge” of the tree, so it has become a “honeypot” for tree-snatchers.

Most of the thieves work for criminal gangs based across the border in mainland China. In recent years a relaxation of restrictions on travel from the mainland to Hong Kong has made their work easier. They often pretend to be hikers, sometimes camping out for weeks while gathering the timber. A local NGO has produced a map showing about 200 sites from which it says around 500 trees were stolen in the past year.

Very few incense trees form agarwood, so they are often destroyed indiscriminately. On Lamma, a plaque marks a spot where three young trees were uprooted. A short scramble up a steep slope reveals a gorier scene: splintered woodchips are all that remain of an aged tree. Mr Yeung, the beekeeper, says “hunters” felled and butchered it in situ. As supplies diminish, the gangs are becoming more desperate. Thieves are raiding private gardens; some residents have begun organising patrols to frighten the thieves away. Alarms and monitoring cameras are being installed.

Excerpts from Trees in Hong Kong: Fragrant Arbour, Economist, Feb. 22, 2016, at 37

The Heist: hacking central banks

federal reserve bank ny, Image from wikipedia

Hackers broke into the Bangladesh central bank’s computer systems in early February, 2016, according to the news service, which cited anonymous officials at the financial institution. The attackers stole the credentials needed to authorize payment transfers and then asked the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to make massive money transfers — nearly three dozen of them — from the Bangladeshi bank’s account with the Fed to accounts at other financial institutions overseas.  Four transfers to accounts in the Philippines, totaling about $80 million, worked. But then a fifth request, for $20 million to be sent to an apparently fictitious Sri Lankan nonprofit group, was flagged as suspicious by a routing bank because of the “fandation” error.

Bangladesh’s central bank was able to stop that transaction after the routing bank asked for confirmation. “The Sri Lankan bank did not disburse it immediately, and we could recover the full amount,” the central bank told the Financial Times.  The requests waiting to be processed — amounting to a total of between $850 million and $870 million, according to an unnamed official cited by Reuters — were also halted. So if it weren’t for that typo, the attackers might have escaped with a bigger payday. Bangladesh’s finance minister has blamed the incident on the Federal Reserve and said his government will “file a case in the international court against” the financial institution, according to the Dhaka Tribune. A New York Fed spokesman denied the accusation, telling The Washington Post in a statement that “there is no evidence of any attempt to penetrate Federal Reserve systems in connection with the payments in question” or that the institution’s systems were compromised. The spokesman said the payment instructions were “fully authenticated” using standard methods.

Excerpts from Andrea Peterson Typo thwarts hackers in $1 billion cyber heist on Bangladesh central bank, Washington Post, Mar. 11, 2016

Germans to Decontaminate Ukraine, Nuclear Waste

image from http://www.dmt-group.com/en/services/engineering/nuclear-waste-disposal.html

A consortium of four German companies has been awarded a contract to improve infrastructure for managing radioactive waste, the rehabilitation of contaminated areas and the decommissioning of nuclear power plants in Ukraine.  The consortium – comprising Brenk Systemplanung, DMT, Plejades and TÜV Nord EnSys – was awarded the contract for the project, which is within the framework of the European Union-funded Instrument for Nuclear Safety Cooperation (INSC). The INSC is designed to support non-EU countries in improving nuclear safety. The contract will run for an initial two-year period and have a maximum budget of €1.5 million ($1.6 million).

According to the tender notice, the main objectives of the contract are to support the Ukrainian State Corporation ‘Radon’ in establishing an emergency response system for “radiation incidents involving unauthorized radioactive materials that are not related to nuclear power plant operation”. It also calls for the establishment of integrated, automated monitoring systems for radiation and environmental protection at Radon facilities, as well as the remediation of radioactive waste storage sites resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident and situated outside the exclusion zone.

In a statement yesterday, DMT said it will jointly lead with TÜV Nord EnSys Hannover the assessment of some 50 radioactive waste storage sites.

Excerpts from German consortium awarded Ukrainian waste contract, World Nuclear News, Mar. 2, 2016